WALTER OMOWALE CARRINGTON AT 80
The rule in international relations is that diplomats on foreign posting are not expected to interfere in the affairs of their host countries lest they are accused of meddlesomeness or risk expulsion. There have been many exceptions to the rule, and one such landmark exception was experienced in Nigeria during the struggle for the actualization of June 12, and the rise of Nigerian civil society groups against continued military rule.
Ambassador Walter C. Carrington who turns 80 tomorrow and whose book appropriately titled A Duty to Speak: Refusing to Remain Silent in a Time of Tyranny is also scheduled for public presentation tomorrow in Lagos, arrived in Nigeria in November 1993, two weeks after the Abacha junta seized power. It was a most trying period for Nigerians. The elections of June 1993 had been annulled including the June 12 Presidential election won by Chief MKO Abiola. An interim Government, a decoy and mischievous contraption, put in place by General Ibrahim Babangida was displaced by General Sani Abacha who soon became a thorn in the flesh of all Nigerians. Abacha and his gang of murderers imposed a totalitarian system under which the abuse of human rights was routine and considered expedient.
Civil society groups which had thought naively that Abacha would hand over power to MKO Abiola were disappointed when the government of the day hauled pro-democracy activists into jail, hounded media houses and journalists, issued shoot-on-sight orders, and trampled on all rules of decency. Civil society groups soon began to rebel, more determinedly under the auspices of many groups, but notably an umbrella organization known as the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). The emergent people's revolt became not just a revolt against the Abacha junta but also against military rule, and a vote for human rights and democracy.
The rebels looked up to the international community for support and to the embassies; concrete support came from the EU countries, Canada and many of the other embassies in Nigeria as well as international agencies, one figure that stood out at the time was the Ambassador of the United States, Walter C. Carrington. He openly supported the pro-democracy protesters. He identified with the rebels, gave anti-Abacha speeches at dinners and cocktails, held meetings with activists; he soon became known as the NADECO ambassador. It used to be said at the time that the American Embassy was the sanctuary for many of the activists who had been declared wanted by the Abacha junta: "if they are looking for you, just find your way to the US Embassy." Walter Carrington stood out as a man of courage and a voice of reason. He went over and above the call of duty to support the Nigerian people openly in their moment of grief and agony. It didn't take long before he was re-named "Omowale"- by NADECO leaders, that is "our son who had returned home."
Mr. Carrington has since proven that he is a man of great convictions and that injustice of any type poses a threat to all human beings; he has been most consistent ever since in his defence of the same principle. The Abacha government abused him openly; once the Inspector General of Police threatened that Nigeria needed a waiver of Carrington's diplomatic immunity to enable the police question him about a series of bombings across the country; he was later summoned to Abuja where the then Minister of Foreign Affairs gave him "a dressing down": the worst form of humiliation for a foreign dignitary. If the Abacha junta could, they would have expelled Carrington, if it was possible they would have shot him (as this was the norm in those days) knowing that Washington's opposition to the human rights abuses of the Nigerian government and the various sanctions being imposed on the country owed largely to the negative reports being filed by the embassies and most unapologetically by Carrington.
In October 1997, the pro-democracy community had organized a farewell party for Carrington: security agents disrupted the party, drove the ambassador and other guests out and arrested a few of the guests. It was a tricky situation. Here was the American ambassador in the midst of all the persons who had been branded enemies of the state. As security agents shoved people around, Papa Abraham Adesanya stood up in defence of Carrington: "As a Nigerian you may have power over me but not on this American Ambassador. You cannot touch him."
But this intimidation did not deter Walter Carrington. When he returned to the United States, he simply continued to campaign against the Abacha government. He was one of those who asked that the street in front of the Nigeria House in New York should be named after Kudirat Abiola, wife of Chief MKO Abiola and a martyr of the struggle. Carrington also appeared before Congress to campaign for the imposition of sanctions to hobble the Abacha government. Many of his colleagues in the diplomatic community in Nigeria probably found his style of engagement rather too undiplomatic but they all admired him. Carrington was a non-career diplomat, this probably made it easier for him to speak the truth. In his interventions in the Nigerian democratic struggle, he succeeded in proving the point that a diplomat's relationship should be with the people not necessarily governments, that the people's interests are just as important as the objectives of international diplomacy, and that ultimately, bad governments do not last but the people do.
Walter Carrington's radicalism was consistent with the goals of US African policy. But he was also well-prepared for the moment. He had been a student activist in the United States, an associate of Martin Luther King, a civil rights activist and former President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Harvard Chapter. A lawyer, he had defended human rights cases, and also served as a member of the Massachusets Commission Against Discrimination (1957 -1961). He was also familiar with the crisis of leadership and development in Africa and the challenges of democratization. He had visited Nigeria in 1959 as an international student, and had been a Professor of African Affairs and written extensively on the subject. Before his tour of duty in Nigeria (1993-97), he had also served as a Director of all peace corps operations in Africa (1961 -1969), and as the United States Ambassador in Senegal (1980 -81). There is perhaps a lesson here for Nigeria about how the quality of appointments to ambassadorial positions, even where non-career officers are involved, is so important. There is a premium gained in having diplomats in whom the people have faith and confidence rather than those who simply discharge their fiduciary functions.
Since his return to the United States, Mr. Carrington has remained a friend of Nigeria and one of its most outspoken analysts. He visits the country regularly (he is happily married to a Nigerian, Dr Arese Carrington nee Ukpoma). When President Obama was elected in the United States two years ago, Carrington's comment was that if Obama had been a Nigerian running for President, he would not have been allowed to do so.
This was before Babangida dropped the bombshell that young Nigerians are not prepared for leadership. In May 1999, the street housing about 12 embassies and the American embassy in Victoria Island, Lagos was renamed Walter Carrington Crescent by the Bola Tinubu administration in honour of this great friend of the Nigerian masses. It was honour well-deserved. But it is unfortunate that on this same street can still be found daily, on queues stretching into the distance, many Nigerians looking for Visas, struggling to escape from their own country. The injustice and inequities for which Carrington and all the pro-democracy activists fought and dared the tyrants have remained because democracy is yet to make much difference in the lives of the people.
In 2003, the Obasanjo administration honoured Walter C. Carrington, with the award of an Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR). Carrington, an American has indeed rendered invaluable service to the Federal Republic of Nigeria and he continues to do so, as a friend who will always tell us the truth about our circumstances and who will always defend the interests of the much-abused ordinary people of this country. As Mr. Carrington turns 80, he can look back with pleasure on years of fruitful service to his country, to humanity, to Africa (for more than 50 years), and with confidence that the values which have defined his long career: integrity, commitment, truth, justice, humanism and the equality of all men are still for all times the best values for the achievement of a good society. We wish him many more years and a winter season of greater fulfillment as we remind him that the Nigerian struggle is not yet ended.